Posted in Travel

Never Too Old For A Trip To The Zoo

Dinosaur at Bristol Zoo“The lions are on form today,” I thought, marvelling at how far their roar appeared to be carrying across Bristol Zoo‘s exceptionally beautiful botanical gardens.

And then I saw it: the first big dinosaur in their new animatronic display, brought in to spice up summer holiday trips to the zoo. There are about a dozen of them  on the loose. Most are camouflaged among the spectacular planting, positioned so that you never see a whole one all at once. You first spot a foot or a snout of a tail, before realising you are dwarfed by a monster.  Zoological gardens? Jurassic Park, more like. They certainly put the lions in perspective. And not just the lions, either. These lifelike giants put man in his place too.

Gerald Durrell statue 2
My hero

Like most right-thinking people, I’m not a fan of caging animals, but in the case of zoos that focus on conservation, I’m prepared to make an exception. Last  year, I made a pilgrimage that I’d been planning for decades to the former Jersey Zoo, now simply known as Durrell, in honour of its founder. Gerald Durrell was a pioneer in animal conservation. When I was a teenager, he charmed me with the killingly funny stories about his eccentric family in “My Family And Other Animals” and infected me with his passion for wildlife conservation. There were tears in my eyes as I crossed the threshold of his zoo. The love, humility and compassion with which the park had been planned made for an emotional visit.

Bristol Zoo's old polar bear pit
Bristol Zoo’s old polar bear pit, long since gone

On its launch, it was one of a kind, but since then all decent zoos have followed where Durrell led. Bristol Zoo was not always so. When I first visited around 1978, there were still animals turned half mad by inappropriate cages. Particularly distressed (and distressing to see) was a beautiful polar bear, endlessly pacing and turning, pacing and turning, along the back wall of its cage. When the bear died of old age, it was thankfully not replaced.

Now, the zoo is apologetic for its past. There are sad memorials to the past errors of its ways. Poster about old bear pole at Bristol ZooThere are the remains of the bear pole, a modest branchless tree trunk that bears once used to climb, to the amusement of the crowd. A notice on the seals’ enclosure, once the site of that pathetic , yellowing polar bear, remarks that in those days, the animals’ cages were designed to be as easy as possible for the keepers to clean. My jaw drops at this revelation, even though I’m old enough to remember when it was considered perfectly acceptable to offer chimpanzees’ tea parties as a visitor attraction and to use them to make advertisements for tea. Rumour had it they were given chewing gum to make it look as if they were talking, northern accents dubbed over the top to give them memorable conversations. So by modern standards it was politically incorrect in terms of the north-south divide too! There were memorable catchphrases.

Still from PG Tips advert using chimpanzee Mr Shifter“Can you ride tandem?”

“Cooee, Mr Shifter!”

“Do you know the piano’s on my toe, dad?”

They certainly shifted tea sales. (Click here to see some clips.)

Thankfully, those unenlightened days are long gone. Bristol Zoo now goes to the opposite extreme. Everywhere you go there are reminders of man’s responsibility to respect and preserve the natural world. There are shocking displays of illegal hunters’ trophies and animal-based Chinese medicines. There are samples of products and labels denoting sustainable sourcing of wood and fish.

My daughter Laura tackling Zooropia elevated walk at Bristol ZooThere is also humiliating evidence of how feeble we are, compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. Above much of the park runs the relatively new Zooropia attraction – a series of telegraph poles connected by all kinds of walkways raised high above the ground. Visitors are invited (for a small fee) to negotiate narrow wires, ropes,  tyres and wooden bridges. Despite being securely attached to a safety harness, first-timers quake at the elevation, at the difficulty of their path, and at the thought that missing their footing could send them tumbling from a great height into the gorillas’ enclosure. Each path is named after a particular animal that would make short work of the challenge – another reminder of man’s inferiority in athletic terms.

There’s also a compelling series of challenges scattered about the zoo, united by the topical theme of the Zoolympics. You are invited to compare your  abilities with that of the animal kingdom. How long can you stand on one leg? Ten seconds? Twenty? That’s nothing compared to the flamingo, which does it for hours at a time. How far can you reach with your arms? Not a patch on the albatross’s wingspan of three metres. How many times can you flap your arms in a minute? Nowhere near as many as the tiny hummingbird’s 5,400 wingflaps per minute (hence the hum from which it gets its name). Don’t expect to emerge with any medals from this competition (though if you want to feel better about your athletic prowess, comfort yourself with a visit to the sloth).

Laura makes friends with an animatronic dinosaurIt’s good to see young visitors really engaging with these challenges and learning a profound respect for the rest of the animal kingdom. But will the presence of all these dinosaurs confuse them, I wonder? Many of them are too young to differentiate between an animatronic and a real animal. They may go away thinking that all the animals are real, including the dinosaurs, or that the all the Zoo’s residents are pretend. (I remember when, at Laura’s age, I visited Disneyland in California, I was convinced that not only were the mermaids we saw were real, but also the working model of Abraham Lincoln, and that used much less sophisticated technology.)

I’m grappling with this problem, berating the Zoo in my mind for playing a foolish trick for the sake of increasing gate takings, when it occurs to me that actually it’s a rather cleverer idea than I’d first realised. For surely, the lesson to be learned here is that if mankind isn’t more careful in future, many other residents of the Zoo will be relegated to the status of the dinosaur: extinct.

It’s not pure whimsy that guided my hero Gerald Durrell’s choice of animal statues to welcome visitors to  his Zoo. Ladies and gentleman, I give you the dodo.

Statue of Dodo (Raphus cucullatus), entrance o...
Statue of Dodo (Raphus cucullatus), entrance of Jersey Zoo, Jersey. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you enjoyed this post, you might like others about our trip to Jersey: Have Hairdrier, Will Travel and What Size is Your Jersey?

Or these about other family days out to the SS Great Britain and the Roman Baths at Bath. 

Posted in Family, Travel

The Ring of Truth

Mood ring
A mood ring (Image via Wikipedia)

“I can’t wait to go to there again, Mummy,” says my daughter breathlessly, recounting that day’s school trip to a Roman museum.

Her topic this term  is the Ruthless Romans (why are topics always alliterative?). I’m pleased that she’s so enthused and I pick up the leaflet to find out where it is.  Then she tells me the reason.

“It’s got a really good gift shop.”

Usually on school trips, they’re banned from bringing spending money, but this time they were allowed £2 each.  I’m impressed by how wisely she’s spent hers: a postcard, a pencil and some Roman coins – and she’s brought home some change and a leaflet that was free.

I like visiting museum shops as much as she does, providing the stock reflects the theme of the museum.  My heart sinks when we find only plastic tat that could have come from anywhere (though usually it’s China).  So  when we enter the Jersey Museum shop at half term, I’m delighted to find it’s full of educational toys and books relevant to the displays we’ve just visited, and they’re all at pocket money prices.  Traditional children’s games, replica wartime memorabilia, old-fashioned puzzles and picture books – we’re spoiled for choice.  But of course Laura makes a beeline for the one item in the shop that falls outside of this category: a mood ring.

A depiction of a typical chart listing suggest...
Image via Wikipedia

I remember mood rings fondly from my teenage years.  There was a fad for chunky stainless steel jewellery and you could buy wide bands with big “moodstones” on top.  My friends and I gazed at them as if they were crystal balls, ready to receive their judgement.  It would have taken a fast-changing ring to reflect our teenage moods.

The 21st century version that’s caught Laura’s eye doesn’t have a stone, but a coloured channel around a silvery band.  It’s slim, elegant and subtle.  And it’s only £1.25.  Laura tries one on and waits for it give its verdict, reading the little colour chart that comes with it.  Waiting at her side, I look down at my wedding finger: it’s bare.

A few weeks ago, my wedding ring became stuck fast.  My hand had become swollen with rheumatoid arthritis and I was starting to fear the loss of circulation.   So I forced the ring off  – a painful, lengthy job, involving much liquid soap and twisting. (Twist, don’t pull – that’s the secret, for which knowledge I have to thank Mr Google.)  I soon decide to get a replacement to keep the gossips at bay – within days people were asking about the state of my marriage.  I don’t like flashy, expensive jewellery and I do like a bargain, so our half term trip to Jersey, famed for its VAT-free status, seems the perfect  perfect opportunity to find one.

By now, Laura’s fishing £1.25 out of her Hello Kitty purse and heading for the till. I pick out the largest size in the cardboard display and slip it onto my own ring finger.  It’s a Cinderella moment: a perfect fit.  I catch her up at the till.

We spend the next few hours comparing our moods, according to our new rings.

“I’m normal and lovable now,” Laura reports earnestly – so no change there then.

For the rest of the holiday, she recourses frequently to the colour chart to check her mood and mine.  They match every time.  I notice that the colour for “bored” is white.  As I recall, my teenage mood ring never turned white, so I look forward to being able to counter any cries of “I’m bored!” with “You can’t be, your mood ring’s not white.”

I plan when I get home to show my ring to my husband.  (We’ve left him at home to do the decorating.)  I think I’ll give him a copy of the colour chart and the advice to check my ring every time he speaks to me.  The wisdom it imparts could seriously improve our relationship.  Maybe  mood rings should be compulsory in all marriages, or indeed prescribed by Relate to those who fall out.

In the meantime, he’s looking forward to a navy blue moment.

Posted in Travel

What Size is Your Jersey?

This exaggerated-colour image of Jersey was ta...
Satellite view of Jersey (Image via Wikipedia)

Collecting our hire car at the airport, I wonder whether fuel will be cheaper on this island, renowned for its lenient taxation.  I don’t have the chance to find out.

“The tank’s half full but don’t bother replenishing it before you return the car,” says the chirpy young man at the Hertz desk.

“But we’re here for five days – will that be enough?”

He smiles kindly, as one might at a child who’s just asked a sweetly naive question.

“Jersey is a small island, you know.  Half a tank will last you more than twice five days.”

I accept his advice.  I’m never one to rush to the petrol pump, the red zone on my fuel gauge being a familiar friend of mine – as is the area just below the letter “E” for “Empty”.  This approach always makes for a more interesting journey.

Prior to our trip, I’ve read in the guide book that the roads in Jersey are very narrow.  This does not worry me.  Where I live in rural Gloucestershire, there are plenty of single-track roads.  Provided you make a mental note of the passing places as you drive, the worst that can happen is that you have to reverse more often than you’d choose.

What I hadn’t expected was the island’s low speed limit.  It’s just 40mph at its fastest, 30 or less in built-up areas and down to 15 in “Green Lanes” (whatever they are).  As most of the roads are barely the width of our hired Ford Ka, I’m not sure how the road network can accommodate the cars of affluent residents.  (I spot more Rolls Royces in our five days on the island than I’ve seen in Gloucestershire all year.) The few roads that are multi-laned are always packed bumper-to-bumper with slow-moving traffic.

But it doesn’t matter that every journey is slow, because the distance to be travelled is tiny. Looking at the map, you assume a trip to the other side of the island will be a pleasant day out, so it comes as a shock when you arrive at your destination in less than half an hour.

We are staying in St Helier on the south coast. The drive to the zoo, near the north coast, takes about five minutes.  So although we are forced to drive slowly, it still feels as if we’re driving at great speed because we reach our destinations so quickly.  Sometimes it’s not even possible to map read as fast as we travel. I feel like I’m queen of the island, I’m mistress of the entire Jersey road network.

The low speed limit also makes the island seem bigger than it really is.  If we applied normal British speed restrictions, it would seem even tinier.  Any small state despot should follow suit: it will make him feel much more important.

If we were using at a road map that included the European mainland visible from Jersey’s east coast, we’d soon gain a true sense  of perspective.  But as the only land mass on our tourist map is the island itself, it’s easy to forget  how small it is – especially when the brochures are constantly boasting that we’re on the largest Channel Island.

I’m reminded of the long-suffering Miss Hardy, who had the misfortune to be my Geography teacher before the subject became cool.  The environmental movement must be a gift to Geography teachers everywhere, making the subject  relevant to pupils’ every day lives. I still struggle to find a practical use for my intimate knowledge of the jute production cycle. No wonder we got bored enough to play pranks, one by one hiding under the desks whenever her back was turned until the classroom seemed empty.

Despite our bad behaviour, Miss Hardy’s face would light up whenever she talked about a year she’d spent on an exchange in  an Australian school.  She told us once “I said to my hosts ‘You are so lucky to live on an island!’ and they said to me ‘But you do!'”  What a delightfully colonial mistake to make.  And if a Geography teacher can get confused about scale, I’ll not be too harsh on myself for my own misconception of Jersey.

I’m less sympathetic to the couple in front of me at the admissions desk to Jersey Museum.

“The island’s so much bigger than we thought it would be,” the woman was saying in a plaintive voice.  “In one episode of Bergerac, we saw John Nettles  on the north west coast, and the next minute he was in St Helier.  It took us half an hour to make the same journey!”

The lady behind the desk gave a wry smile.  I don’t think it was the first time she’d fielded this complaint.

“That’s just the editing,” she said patiently.  “It’s what television people do.”

Good old Bergerac, he must really have boosted tourism to the island – no wonder the museum attendant rushed to his defence. But I don’t think I’d choose him as my tour guide.

Posted in Travel

Have Hairdrier, Will Travel

Flybe Dash 8 in planform view
The Flybe Dash 800 - matching curling tongs also available (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m crossing the Channel in a hairdrier.  Or so it seems to me. As soon as the pilot starts the twin engines of the small Flybe Dash 800 on which I’m travelling to Jersey, the propellors judder noisily with that distinctive buzz normally associated with a blow-dry.  It makes my whole body vibrate. Though the speed of their rotation soon renders the propellors invisible, the noise only increases and I quickly realise it’s going to be with us the whole way – in the unlikely event that the engines don’t drop off along the way.

I should have anticipated that our plane would be so tiny when the stewardess at the gate told us we’d be “walked” to it for boarding.  To be able to nuzzle up so closely to the terminal, the aircraft would have to be pretty small.

It turns out to be only slightly bigger than the Air Luxembourg plane I took once as a teenager when couriering computer parts for my engineer father.  (Well, Luxembourg is a tiny country, they have to make best use of their airspace.)  As one of a small group of passengers, I was put on a bus to the plane.  After a few moments’ drive across the tarmac, the bus stopped and opened its doors.  I was puzzled – why were were stopping when there was no plane in sight?  Only when I stepped off the bus did I discover why: the plane was so small that it fitted below the sightline of the bus window.

On board awaiting take-off, a chirpy stewardess strolled down the aisle offering a quaint straw basket of sweets.  We passengers each seized a handful, hopeful that they contained an anti-emetic, if not cyanide.

But our Jersey-bound plane today proves bigger inside than it looks.  The official capacity is 78 passengers.  About a third of this number are on board.  The stewardess quickly curtails anyone’s intention of spreading out.

“Please consult a stewardess before changing seats,” she announces over the tannoy. “This aircraft is movement sensitive.”

We sit very still after that, worried that the slightest motion could change our course. Flip a page of the inflight magazine too quickly and we could end up in Guernsey – or the sea.

In less than an hour, we’re landing in Jersey, but only after a white-knuckle touchdown.  Never usually an anxious flyer, I think I’m about to become one.  Normally I love the moment when the plane first contacts the ground, making you suddenly aware of the tremendous speed at which you’ve been travelling.  But this time the rush is too much. It’s accompanied by loud gasps and ill-suppressed shrieks.  Moving as one, we grip the back of the seat in front of us, stiff-armed to guard against concusion on its headrest.  If ever there was a moment in my flying experience that I’ve expected the stewardess to cry “BRACE, BRACE!” in earnest, as heralded in every preflight safety talk, this is it.  If we carry on taxiing at this rate, we’ll run out of Jersey before we stop. We’ll be ditching into the sea beyond its shore.  That lifejacket under my seat is about to see active service.  I make a mental note not to inflate it before leaving the aircraft.

Welcome sign in Jèrriais in arrivals at Jersey...
A Welcome sight indeed - Jersey Airport's welcome sign in local languagu Jerriais (Image via Wikipedia)

But in the nick of time, the brakes take full effect, and not a moment too soon we’re inside the tiny terminal claiming our baggage from the carousel.  As I wait for my polka dot travel bag to appear, I wonder why no-one ever warned me of the perils of this tiny, bumpy, noisy flight to Jersey.  Is it because I don’t know anyone who’s lived to tell the tale?

Ah, but I do – and it comes back to me that just the other week a friend was singing the praises of Channel Island flights.  Who was it again?  Ah yes, my hairdresser, Natasha.  Well, I suppose for her, travelling in a hairdryer would make her feel right at home.